THERE was only one thing that I wanted when they asked me what I wanted. I wanted to go to Canada.
In 1973, I finished college, and of course, my parents wanted to give me something. They weren't offering a car this time; I had gotten one of those to take to college, a blue MG that got stolen from the basement garage of my apartment building. I had to wait a while for another car, but I still wanted to get on the road and, specifically, head north to the only part of the French-speaking world that was within driving distance of Chicago: Montreal and Quebec City.
I had been to Paris two years before, and being in Paris reminded me of a childhood trip to French-speaking Canada. I had never seen a sidewalk cafe before going to Montreal. I had had so much pleasure in Paris, sitting with a friend on the Rue St. Jacques writing surrealist poems about cucumbers, that I thought I could get the feel of that again by a drive north into the cities of Quebec. I had also been taking French in college and wanted to give it a try beyond the classroom.
So I said to my parents, "How about letting me take your car, Mom, and drive to New York to see some friends and then up to Quebec. I don't really want any 'thing' for graduation, I'd just like to take this trip."
So it was. I got the keys to her car, some cash, Dad's credit card, and off I went, alone.
I went to New York City. Then I headed north. I planned to make an overnight stop in Syracuse, stay with a high school friend, and then cross over the river into Canada.
Everything went as planned until I got to the river. The car began to break down in the toll booth. I got it off to the side of the road and that was it. The car died. I waited for the tow back to Syracuse, the closest place with a Mercedes dealer. Knowing how long it sometimes took to repair this car (Mercedes weren't as plentiful then, and neither were parts or quick service), I looked at the bridge with foreboding that I would be spending my cafe days in Syracuse.
So it was. I never got to Montreal and Quebec City. Instead, I sat in my friend's house in Syracuse and read all the plays and poems of T. S. Eliot. After a week of Syracuse and Eliot, and of my friend spending most of his time with his girlfriend who had just gotten back from Europe, I headed back to Chicago. I had to get myself and the car home. I felt gypped.
Several years ago, I had two cars, a new-ish small Ford and a huge, gas-guzzling old Buick that we used for carrying our five children. One morning, in the deepest of winter on the Illinois tundra, the front left tire on the Buick went flat. Only the day before, the fan had broken in the Ford, making it impossible to imagine using that car withouit the heat blowing inside. But we had to get to work.
There was no time to change the tire, and the temperature was such that it might have been dangerous to even try. So my wife Barbara and I bundled ourselves in blankets and layers of socks and braved the trip in the frozen Ford through the desolate cornfields to our office.
When we got there, I felt that echoing angry voice inside saying, "Just let someone else take care of that tire. And don't shop around for a new fan; just give that car to someone and let them fix it. After all, that's how it should be for you. That's how it was for Dad!"
But I knew I didn't have the money to think that way. We were so broke with so many kids that I knew this time it would not be like my trip to Canada. I may have felt angry when the Mercedes broke, but I could, at least, have someone else tow my trouble away and fix it on Dad's handy-dandy credit card. Not so on that cold Illinois winter morning. I could not pay anyone to tow away my troubles or change the tire. There they sat, as frozen as the air, as heavy upon me as the ice-covered snow.
I looked at my wife and at that freezing Ford outside; I thought about the flat tire on the Buick, about my kids, and my debts. It occurred to me, finally, that tending personally to the finite things (like two broken cars) that make our lives work was not a curse upon me. Of course, there can be too much of this; too many things can break and people can break. But for me, two broken cars were not a curse but a burden that simply forced me to reimagine my day in order to get the most important things don e. And I did.
It forced me to think (in a way that I had not had to think in the days of Dad's handy-dandy credit card) about the possibility that the way the world should be for me today is, perhaps, just as it is. And I realize in retrospect that the poems and plays that I read in Syracuse (while I was feeling bitterly gypped of Montreal's cafes) also happened to change my way of seeing my world. I wasn't, finally, gypped by waiting in Syracuse. My heart was transformed.
Do you remember what the angry and bitter French university students painted on the Sorbonne walls during the strikes of 1968? They painted in bold letters, "LIFE IS ELSEWHERE!!" I wonder. Might it not be otherwise?